Joanna Penn, aka JF Penn, shares her journey writing Pilgrimage, a Travel Memoir that she launched with a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2023.
Penn shares her insights on the challenges and fulfilling moments of walking solo on two ancient pilgrimage ways in England during Covid, followed by finally reaching a lifelong dream to walk the Camino.
She offers useful tips for:
a) Undertaking such a journey
b) Integrating the trips into her life
c) Writing a Travel Memoir book called Pilgrimage, Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways. What people said because it’s so different from her fiction and nonfiction books usually associated with her author brand)
d) Why she launched it on Kickstarter
e) Why authors sometimes need to write a book from the heart, not directly connected to their brand or business.
The YT video episode sparkles with her own photographs (copyright JF Penn) as B-roll to the video interview.
You can find the book at https://www.jfpenn.com/pilgrimage — also ebook, print and audiobook along with a workbook to help you journal your own questions and answers likely to arise on undertaking a pilgrimage.
Listen also to relevant episodes on her Books and Travel podcast.
book, pilgrimage, Camino, journey, writing, feel, travel, midlife, podcast, walk, pilgrims, walking, answer, energy, pilgrimages, day, write, people, canterbury, lockdown
Joanna Penn, Caryl Westmore
Joanna Penn 00:00
When you’re writing this book, don’t just give tips about things or don’t just keep it on the surface. You really do have to bare your soul in order to connect with people, and it is our personal journey that connects.
[Intro Question] Do you feel you’ve lost direction in life? Feel overwhelmed, longing to reconnect with spiritual meaning and your life purpose? Then today’s guest JF Penn may spark some answers in you.
JF Penn is the award nominated New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of 20 thrillers, dark fantasy and crime novels, as well as short stories. Her latest book is a midlife travel memoir, Pilgrimage, Lessons learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways. Now Joanna, there’s a lot more I wanted to say about you! Many of us know you, from The Creative Penn podcast and from the Arkane thriller books. And so it’s a new direction for you in some ways, although I believe you’ve always loved travel, and you have a degree from Oxford University in Theology.
[Music/Podcast Intro] Hello and welcome to the Write the Book Inside You podcast. Tips Tools in interviews for coaches and healers, like you who want to write a nonfiction book to boost your visibility clients and cash flow while making a difference. I’m your host, Caryl Westmore, a multi published author and energy psychology tapping book coach. Now let’s jump into today’s episode.
Joanna Penn 01:46
I’ve always had a love of architecture and history and culture, European culture, and the religious history behind a lot of great European cities is fascinating. And so, when I started walking pilgrimages before I had the idea really for the book, I always noticed things that are historical, that sort of resonate with story over 1000 or more years. So that’s kind of what goes into my fiction.
But in this book, it was definitely a challenge. I didn’t know what kind of book I was writing. And I know with many of the people in your audience it’s a kind of top-down approach where you’re like, “I’m gonna write a book on this.” Which, for example, my How to Write Nonfiction is a one of those. It’s like, oh, here’s the topic, here are the things and I know you have many of these books. But this book Pilgrimage, it’s my only memoir, as yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever write another one. But it’s that kind of bottom up energy that sort of says, there are all these things I want to talk about. And I really don’t know what this book is. But if I start writing it, and I have, I think it was nearly 100,000 words that did not go into that book. Because I started so many different books over the last, say, the last five to 10 years, I’ve been writing bits and bobs on what I thought would be a travel book.
And it brought to mind Michael Crichton’s book Travels, do you know that one? So that book I read that must be back in the 90s, before he died. And I was like, ‘I want to write a book like that’. And it’s actually a book of essays about different travels. And when I started my Books and Travel podcast, to almost work towards a book like that, and I have done solo episodes that I thought would go in, I mean, you are South African, and I lived in Malawi. So I had some thoughts about Malawi. And I had other thoughts. And I thought that’s what the book would be. But over time, it just developed into something else. And I think that would be a tip for people listening is look, sometimes you know what the book is, and you can just write it. Sometimes you do not know what the book is. And it kind of emerges over time. And I think — similar to Pilgrimage, — being a sort of calling, I feel like memoir, perhaps is a bit of a calling. And sometimes these books of our heart almost just emerge over time. And we have to listen to that and respect it and not try and force it into a box that we want it to go into. I really tried to force a travel book out earlier. And it just didn’t happen.
Caryl Westmore 04:19
I love that. You know, one of the reasons I was inspired — actually at the beginning of lockdown — to help other people write the book inside them was a combination of helping my husband write his memoirs of being a True Expat in the oil and gas industry and showing me all these sheets of paper (letters he wrote home from all over the world) and I said, Why don’t we put it into a book? And I also wanted to help healers because of my own journey through the healing energy and coaching arenas to help those people write their books and spread the word. And what I love about this podcast is meeting people who had a book inside them that they had to write — even beyond it being a calling card for their business. Sometimes it’s both, as you say yours emerged from, I would say the book deep inside you.
Sure, yeah. And it doesn’t fit into my business or my fiction life. It’s a completely kind of standalone thing. You mentioned my architectural themes and theological interest. Even the books that don’t seem to fit into your business may still have an element of you that people connect with and that helps you reach people in a different way. It gives you a different aspect to, dare I say, your brand. I think perhaps, with this book, people were quite shocked… I was quite shocked, in a way, but a lot of people were like, how are you writing this book? Because that doesn’t seem like something you would do? And I’m like, well, actually, it’s very like me, it’s just perhaps a side of me that I haven’t shown before. But that is hard. And I would say to people listening as well, there are so many books in the world. And yeah, we have to write ours. But the thing that makes it your book is your most personal stuff, your most personal stories. And I think this was a real challenge. With the memoir, I have written a lot of personal things in my nonfiction, and my fiction is a lot of my thoughts about the world in the voice of my characters. But this one, there was a lot of personal stuff about midlife challenges and depression and all of these things. And, it was tough to put it out there. But I think the only reason that our books really resonate with people is if they are personal, so I’d advise people listening, you know, when you’re writing this book, don’t just give tips about things or don’t just keep it on the surface, you really do have to bare your soul in order to connect with people. And it is our personal journey that connects.
Dare I bring up the topic, but with ChatGTP on the horizon, you know, books are nothing without that personal input from the heart. ChatGTP can write a whole book on pilgrimage. It’s not what you Joanna have brought to get into the personal… which as we know does resonate with people and I predict that your brand will explode because people say, Oh, I understand more about this author…maybe I want to read the Arkane thrillers which I’ve never read but which may interest me because of what she’s written in Pilgrimage.
And you know, the other thing, when you look back 10 years from now, all those journals and pictures you’ve gathered in a book, you’ve got something tangible. And that’s what I found. I wrote my first book 10 years ago about my journey into EFT Tapping from being a journalist and the people I helped which have long gone in my memory.
But they’re in the book, I can go back and look. And you’ve still got many years ahead of you on that. But I think that’s another thing that I experienced as fulfilling with my husband, just putting his memoirs into a book from the heart, getting it properly published.
And in your case, you did the Kickstarter. So, I’m going to jump to that before we even go into the book because it would have been like a marketing aspect that people might want to hear about. First of all, you were leading up to this book, am I right, in that you were podcasting about it, without thinking this will help the book? But ultimately, do you agree it must have piqued fans’ interest?
Well, I’ve been sharing my journey online since 2008. I have been sharing pictures on Instagram from my walks. When I did the first pilgrimage from London to Canterbury in 2020, I shared the pictures on my Instagram. I thought I would write a book. But I didn’t really know what it would turn into. So again, it’s a case of just keep sharing your journey. And then eventually, if it does turn into a book, you will have some good photos and you’ll have some good fodder to use in the marketing.
So, it was really sort of two and a half years of doing the different walks and then writing something and doing the solo podcasting and all of that kind of thing. But one of the reasons I did the Kickstarter was because this is a standalone pilgrimage memoir that doesn’t fit under either of my author brands. So, I thought well, in order to make this something that people might actually buy, I’m gonna do a Kickstarter and the benefit of it is also that you can get some money up front to order beautiful books and pay for beautiful books and I wanted to do the special edition hardback with color photos and silver foil and all these special things that I’ve never done before in a book. So, I thought well, even if, let’s see, I think my goal was like £1000 pounds or something. If I can make that much, then I will be able to do the special books. In the end, it made over £26,000 pounds. And that was really good. Yeah. And, and it just shows you a lot of people were supportive of me as a person because they’ve been following my journey. But also, a whole load of people have found this book who just feel called to pilgrimage. As I mentioned, I feel like it is a calling. If you see a book called Pilgrimage, you know whether you’re interested or not. It is one of those things that people either really get, or they just do not understand it.
I’d love you to talk about that. What are the most common reasons for pilgrimage? I know your preface describes it beautifully. But can you tell us in your words, again?
Yeah, well, it is, in essence, for me a long walk. I mean, some people cycle or horseback ride or whatever they do. It’s a journey. But it’s a journey to a spiritual place of meaning. And for many people, that is a religious journey, or perhaps a spiritual journey. But also I think, in these secular times, and I’m not a Christian, I have a degree in theology. I’m very interested in, and I think about questions of faith, but I’m not a Christian. And so pilgrimage really is about seekers, people who are seeking an answer to a question. And for me, it was really the questions, firstly, of being a woman in midlife and the changes that occur in that time, and what is my direction? Also, I reached 13 years in the job of being a writer. And it’s like, well, what do I do next? Is it just book after book after book forever? Or what’s the deeper meaning behind what I do? Do midlife career as well. And also, it’s so weird talking about the pandemic. Now, as we record this in 2023, right, it feels so weird. You just flew in from South Africa, and I’m off to New Zealand. And but there was this time when we could not travel. We couldn’t leave the country. We couldn’t really leave our houses.
Joanna, I was in lockdown in Cape Town, we couldn’t come back to England for two years. And so I understand from your book, how frustrated you got, because you were always a traveler, world traveler, and it helped you spark your ideas. And then you found yourself constrained. And there’s a quote, you’ve got in the book ‘In the moment of darkness, the call comes,” so speak to that about how, you decided to get out of the house and walk?
Well, and that quote is by Phil Cousineau, in his book, The Art of Pilgrimage, which is a wonderful, wonderful book for that more spiritual side of things. But I’ve always felt a call to pilgrimage since my teens when, I was a Christian for a period, but during our COVID lockdowns and everything, I just felt like crushed, you know, I felt like this bird in a cage with bloody wings, trying to bash her way out, and I needed to get out. And the only thing we could do in between the lockdowns was we could walk and be outside. This was before the vaccine. So the fear was really high in the world. I was afraid of going because I hadn’t had COVID at that point, and we all thought we were going to die and, and yet there was the mental health aspect of being trapped in my house for so long. It was better for me to get out and leave than it was to stay in my house and kill my husband.
So yeah, in the moment of darkness, the call comes. I mean, I was definitely going through – like many people — depression and anxiety, but again, also midlife, hormonal changes made that a lot worse. And, and I we couldn’t see the end of it either. At that point, we really didn’t know what was going to happen. And so I wondered: what if I walk, maybe I can figure this out. And I feel like people go on pilgrimage, because they, they have this question. They have this desire for change. It’s like a fork in the road, rather than just going on a long walk, which can be for exercise or whatever. So I feel like it enabled me. But I should say one pilgrimage did not fix me. And I think this is important too. Because sometimes you feel like, oh, I’ll just go on this journey. And then I will have a moment of enlightenment and suddenly I will know what to do with my life.
But that that isn’t what happened to me. And I really don’t think that’s what happens to a lot of people. It really took a couple of years and three pilgrimages for me to find an answer and find a way through that by which time the pandemic was also over.
Was walking the Camino the apex of your journeys? And did it answer the questions about your way forward?
I have always wanted to do the Camino de Santiago. When I was sick with COVID and I was lying in bed. I was really sick as I’ve ever been. And I was like, right, I’ve said, I will do it for 20 years, I need to do this. I made that decision. And then I did the St. Cuthbert’s Way, because again, we still couldn’t travel that was 2021. We still couldn’t travel. And when we talk about the kind of the apex I actually feel like the highest point of the entire thing was crossing the sands it was on its way which was from Melrose in Scotland to Lindisfarne and crossing the tidal sands one of the most memorable, half an hour’s like off my life, walking across these, it’s where the tide goes out, you can walk to the island, and there are seals singing, which is just weird. And, it’s a bird sanctuary, and you walk over to this island that over 1000 years ago, St. Cuthbert and the monks crossed, and you really, really felt like a pilgrim walking in the steps of history. So that was really a high point. But when I did the Camino, it was to fulfill that promise, it was much more hopeful time. And we still had to wear masks in Spain, and Portugal, like in taxis and on the plane and stuff like that. But people were happy. And we’re walking around outside with no masks on it just felt like a new hope.
And when I got home, I realized that I was happy to be home, which is something I hadn’t felt like possibly ever. And that I wanted to stay here. And that was a big realization. And it might not seem like a big deal to some people, but we adopted two cats when I returned. We had had a cat in Australia over a decade ago. And we had to when we left we found him a new home. And I swore I would never ever leave the animal behind again, even though he was fine and lived another decade without us in a happy home. Again, so we have two cats now. And it was a commitment almost to staying in one place instead of moving on and moving on, which is something I’ve always do. So I think coming back from the Camino just everything fell into place.
So that was an answer in many ways. Plus, I think some of your midlife issues were also been sorted during that, Oh, yes. I also went on HRT, for anyone listening, you know, I didn’t sleep properly for a couple of years. And so I was actually mentally ill from lack of sleep and those issues. And so yes, medically, I had an answer. But also, I think even just managing to sleep helped. So I was together for over two and a half years. It’s kind of crazy to think that and that’s why when I was writing the book and to come back to tips for people listening, it was like a hardcore wrangling process. And I use Scrivener which is just fantastic. And it was critical for writing this because Scrivener you can drag and drop things around and move things into folders and shuffling things and I rewrote and rewrote and cut and just tried to figure out this book for so long. I had so many words, so many journals, so many photos that it was hard to figure out how it would become one book. But I’m very I’m very happy with it.
Yeah, I love I love the three parts and talking of three you said there are three types of energy which are related to writing a book actually, could you go through the three types of energy you need to begin an end a pilgrimage? For sure Well, you’re right or use the same metaphor for writing so the starting energy is the sort of the planning the preparation the idea booking things if you’re going on a pilgrimage booking leave if you have work and all of that kind of thing actually buying a plane tickets to Porto to begin my Camino like I talked about it for years and never actually done it. So that’s the starting energy and for the for writers that that idea maybe it’s the first 20,000 words, which is always it for me. I’m like, Oh, this is great, fantastic. And then I get to 20,000 words, I’m like, Okay, I should probably stop and figure this out now. And then there’s the pushing through energy, which is the grind really, there are many days on pilgrimage. I remember one day on the Camino it I went out to go out it was a storm like all day is the tail end of a hurricane. I had blisters, I was in pain. It was chucking down with rain. I was cold and a lot of the walk that day was on a road like a busy road. It was horrible. And I was like why am I doing this? You know, and then you just have to keep putting one foot after the next in order to get that day over. And sometimes you need that pushing through energy when you’re writing a book. Sorry To tell people it’s like not every day of writing a book is all glorious and easy. There are plenty of times when it’s a struggle to write in the same way as struggle to walk. And then there’s the finishing energy, which is for writers, it’s finishing the editing and the publishing, and then the book marketing, which we all love, obviously, and then with pilgrimage it is once you get to the end, it’s how do you process what you have done.
But if even if you don’t want to write a book, maybe there’s a photo that you want to print out or make a photo book of your journey. Or maybe there’s some other way that you consider memorializing your trip. So, for example, on my wall here, I bought those little enamel pins. I don’t think I’ve told anyone this, I bought these little enamel pins…one for each of my pilgrimages, and they’re stuck on the wall. They’re very small, you know, the scallop shell, and the little pilgrims way and the Cuthbert’s cross. And I can just look over and I can think I did that. And I can feel proud of it. But also, I feel like it’s good to remember what you’ve achieved, because let’s face it, we forget…the pilgrimage, particularly… and even writing a book, you’re like, what did I do yesterday? Or what did I do two weeks ago, we forget the day to day. And actually the simplicity of the pilgrims day is one of the blessings. It’s the same every day. And yet that is also quite easy to forget. So, keeping a journal, taking photos and then that finishing energy is really just processing it and it might take more time than you think. Like I said, I thought I would solve my life by a six-day pilgrimage to Canterbury, but it took a lot longer. So give yourself some grace I think to find the gold in your experience.
I love how you described it. To me it’s almost like post partem depression which happens after writing a book or having a baby. But when you arrived at Canterbury, there was there was no one to say I bless you for what you’ve done.
Joanna: Well done Pilgrim!
Well, I’ve gone you know how you come to the end of it and it’s okay. Tell us about Canterbury.
Cantebury was particularly funny because I booked accommodation I highly recommend if people go to Canterbury, you can book the lodge within the cathedral grounds. And I booked the lodge they should know, right? They should know what a pilgrimage is. And I arrived I’m covered in mud. It rained again all that day. And I walked in and the lady on the desk checking me in asked: have you come far? And I said I’ve come from London. And it’s a six-day walk — like 180 kilometers. And she said, Oh, what time did you set off this morning? And I realized she has no clue it’s not just a train journey. short chain journey. But it was. It’s funny because the set I then understood when I arrived at Lindisfarne and Canterbury is a big city in the UK. And many of these pilgrimage sites are big cities and Santiago de Compostela was worse. I mean, it was so busy. It was full of people. I was jostled around. And it was this let down with like, Oh, I’ve been out on my own. And now suddenly I’m in this big town and nobody cares. And they’re looking at me like what the hell are you doing weirdo with your backpack on. And Lindisfarne was also strange, I had this wonderful high point of walking over the sands. And then there’s a bench on the other side. And I sat down to take off my wet shoes. And then I walked around the corner and there’s a coach park with all these day trippers. And I was like, what? this is just crazy. So yeah, the sort of the letdown of arriving on a pilgrimage when you think it will be the spiritual moment and, or some kind of fanfare, like that just doesn’t happen. So, what I suggest to people is, make sure you book accommodation in the place you’ll go into for a couple of days, at least a day afterwards, then only get on a plane or get on a bus the next day, because you need time to like settle down a bit. And experience so Canterbury Cathedral I went to even so on that night, which was also amazing, very memorable. Yeah, you described. Oh, thank you. Yeah, it was just Oh, and I was one of the first there and the sound and the cathedrals. That was a spiritual moment. But then I went back the next day as a tourist. I bought the ticket and did the tourist’s tour and, you know, had breakfast and all those things just to settle in before coming home like that separation between the two. But yeah, I think that and also with a book, talking about expectations. Some of the most disappointed authors are those who think that their book is for everyone, and it’s going to change everyone’s life and it might make them a million and they can retire. And the expectations around a book launch are I don’t know where they come from, because I don’t know hardly anyone to whom it happens. I mean, the media reports on the Super successes, but you know most of our books go into the world and nobody really cares. So then we have to be the ones to champion our books. And the reward is how you’ve been changed along the way. And some people will love it and resonate, but many people won’t. And we can’t be upset about that. We just have to give it to the world in the best way. And some people will find it.
I love that! I love that analogy that we’ve made between the pilgrimage and writing a book. Another question: Are you addicted to or planning to do yet another pilgrimage one day?
Well, I would say I’m addicted to traveling. So I do like to travel. But because I my husband’s super supportive to, for me to go off on my own doing these walks. But I have walked a lot on my own for the last three years. So, I plan to do more with him for now. But I do have one in mind that I would love to do. It’s a Japanese one in Japan. It’s called the Shikoku pilgrimage, and it’s but it’s like 750 miles ( 1000 kilometers) around 88 temples and I’ve always had a book I want to do in Japan about these ancient monks that mummify themselves by eating this particular sap that makes them essentially turn into mummies. It’s amazing, and is one of my Arkane thriller ideas, which are all quite weird and have religious angles. But so that pilgrimage might be a really interesting way to get into the Japanese culture. So part of me wants to do more, but I do have another reflection for people which if you are going to do a pilgrimage. One of my rules for myself was to carry my own pack and walk every step of the way. But I certainly had quite a lot of pain and blisters at different points. So my rule now is hire baggage transfer – it really doesn’t undermine your experience of the pilgrimage. But now I feel like I’ve done that… I’ve done the long walks for weeks on end with a pack. And I think especially people who’ve never walked long distance before or multi days, then having your pack carried just means you have a lighter time of it, and you’ll be in less pain, which let’s face it makes your journey more enjoyable. I was probably punishing myself in some way.
like atoning for a sin is one of the things you say.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, why else walk pilgrimage? But no, next time, I will get baggage transfer.
That’s good to hear. And I think your book will inspire people. I want to just let people know it’s so practical as well. We’ve talked about the mindser and the energy, but actually I think in part three you really give really valuable tips. So, before we jumped on the call I asked…why another book on pilgrimage? I think the answer is partly because this is current times and now you can give current information.
And one of the things that I didn’t ask, and I’d like to before we end this, what time of year did you travel? Was it to avoid the crowds going later in the year? Or to avoid the heat?
Well the first one was because we were in between lockdowns. And then it had the added benefit of being autumn so it wasn’t too hot, wasn’t too cold. And then the following year, again, I did the Cuthbert’s Way at a similar time, because I’d had COVID in the July. I had to recover and I was still really weak, super weak. I was trying to prove that I could survive and all of that type of thing. And then the Camino I originally booked for the April. But I moved it to the September that year because I just wasn’t ready. But you say to avoid the busy times. The Camino, whichever route you choose, it is a busy, busy pilgrimage. Like if you want a solo pilgrimage, it’s more wilderness at the St. Cuthbert’s which is amazing. And I highly recommend that.
But the Camino is an industry. You have to embrace the industry and accept that okay, this is what it is. I’m going to do this and it particularly busy in the last sort of four or five days as everyone jumps on that last 100 kilometers to get the Compostella certificate, which you have to do 100 kilometres to get. But yes, I would say the Camino is not really a solo thing. There are loads of people there and the quiet times of the year are when a lot of the things are closed. So the accommodation might be closed, that kind of thing if you want to go in deep midwinter, but yeah, so definitely research that Timing, but it’s in your book as well, where to stay and who to contact. And I think that’s what’s wonderful about your book is you describe both the times of awe when “the spiritual veil thins” and yet, there’s a lot of practical information that people might want to know. And rather than them emailing you it’s all in the book.
So Thank you, Joanna. I don’t want to take more of your time, but it’s been really great. There may be people listening, who really feel that they’ve reached a crossroads or want an answer to something. And the fact that they can start small, smaller in England could be encouraging.
Oh, well, thanks so much for having me, Caryl. This has been really fun.
So Joanna, tell us where can people find Pilgrimage?
Pilgrimage is out everywhere on all your favorite stores in all your favorite formats or audio book, ebook, paperback and the special edition hardback is available. And the workbook I should say there’s a workbook too is on my bookstore, creativepennbooks.com. And also, if people are interested, I have a Books and Travel podcast available on your favorite podcast app. So hopefully, people will find that useful.
Because you’ve got some episodes on your podcast as well, don’t you?
Yeah, lots on pilgrimage. Absolutely. And there are pictures on my Instagram @jfpenn over the years as well if people are interested.
Oh, that’s great. Thank you and I’ll put that in the show notes as well.
Thanks so much for having me, Caryl
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Caryl Westmore 32:14
[Outro + Music] Thanks for joining me on today’s podcast. Want a free gift to inspire you further on your book writing adventure? My free checklist 5 Book Hook Tips to Kickstart your Book Writing journey will help you get clarity on the key essentials to make your book a winner. Download it at www.writethebookinsideyou.com/free gift. The links are in the shownotes.
Until next time, a big Virtual hug and keep writing!